Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Book Review: Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

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"The best stories pull readers in and keep them turning the pages, eager to discover more, to find the answer to the question: 'And then what happened?' The true hallmark of great literature is great imagination, and as Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio prove with this outstanding collection, when it comes to great fiction, all genres are equal.

"Stories is a groundbreaking anthology that reinvigorates, expands, and redefines the limits of imaginative fiction and affords some of the best writers in the world - from Peter Straub and Chuck Palahniuk to Roddy Doyle and Diana Wynne Jones, Stewart O'Nan and Joyce Carol Oates to Walter Mosley and Jodi Picoult - the opportunity to work together, defend their craft, and realign misconceptions. Gaiman, a literary magician whose acclaimed work defies easy categorization and transcends all boundaries, and 'master anthologist' Sarrantonio personally invited, read, and selected all the stories in this collection, and their standard for this 'new literature of the imagination' is high. 'We wanted to read stories that used a lightning-flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it at all.'

"As it transforms your view of the world, this brilliant and visionary volume - sure to become a classic - will ignite a new appreciation for the limitless realm of exceptional fiction."


It begins with blood. Roddy Doyle's "Blood," to be sure: a slick and sickening twist of a tale about a man who develops an inexplicable, irresistible hunger for the red stuff. "He grew up in Dracula's city. He'd walked past Bram Stoker's house every day on his way to school. But it had meant nothing to him," until one night his wife is cooking up a steak and he realises he wants it not medium-rare, not blue, but raw. He plays the eejit when she laughs his urge off; privately, his compulsion threatens to spirals out of control. He self-diagnoses anemia, imagines himself a neck fetish, but the forbidden truth of this fabulous farce is disarmingly simple: he just wants to drink blood. To next door's henhouse, then.

Stories begins with such a barnstormer of a short that you'll have bought into this once-in-a-lifetime anthology's only real conceit before you can think twice about it - and why would you? Do you hate fun? In a publicity video released a short while before this book, co-editor Neil Gaiman asserted that there's no definitive right way to read a collection of short stories; be it front to back, back to front, selectively according to length or author, any which way will do. One thing is for certain, though: Roddy Doyle's contribution is the perfect one with which to begin Stories: All-New Tales. Clever, funny and mysterious, it brings genre and general fiction together, addressing, if not quite answering the underlying question which Gaiman states in his brief introduction was the only real requirement for inclusion in this anthology: "And then what happened?"

It's a question you'll find yourself asking of this star-studded collection of short stories page after page. Roddy Doyle gives way to Joyce Carol Oates, whose chilling repetition of "but not one. Two" haunts "Fossil-Figures", a chilling, circular tale of twins born other to one another reminiscent of The Omen. Oates hands the reins to Joanne Harris, whose Jigs and Reels demonstrated her prowess with short-form narrative, and "Wildfire in Manhattan," a whimsical, if slightly overwrought tale of spiteful old deities, brings nothing to mind more than Gaiman's own American Gods.

Speaking of whom, I suspect a great many will come to Stories for that gentleman's novelette alone, and "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" does not disappoint. Gaiman introduces us to a man, short, secretive and never named, who seeks "a certain cave on the Misty Isle" where it is rumoured a deathly spectre awaits to grant his heart’s desire, and a guide to take him to it. He comes upon Calum MacInnes in "a house that sat like a square of white sky against the green of the grass," and after some bargaining, they venture forth into the ethereal landscape together. Having spent some time in the region himself, Gaiman does the highlands and islands justice, his exposition just florid enough to evoke their timeless attraction, yet retaining that essential component of such stories as this: an ever-present sense of mystery, of the unknown and the unknowable. Gaiman obscures much from the outset, yet his obfuscation never intrudes on the narrative, nor does it seem at all calculated – until an icy breath of revelation in the last act gives chilling context to all that has come before. "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is a tale to be read and re-read immediately, so delicate is its construction, its climax so surprising and satisfying.

A sumptuous anthology already, I'm sure you'll agree, and we're only four of twenty-seven stories in. Don't go thinking that's all the big hitters, either: there's Michael Marshall Smith and Joe R. Lansdale to go, Richard Adams and Jodi Picoult, not to mention Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk, Diana Wynne Jones, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, Joe Hill and Gaiman's co-editor in arms, "master anthologist" Al Sarrantonio. And it wouldn't do to give short shrift to those other authors whose tales are wedged between the more household names: there isn't a dud in this bunch. Some, perhaps, work better than others, but everyone brings their A-game to the table.

Be they unknown to you or your favourite writers, the names soon begin to blur from one narrative through to the next, and it is then, as it should be, the stories that shine through. An assassin discusses whether he's been naughty or nice with his intended target; a high-school bully suffers for his sadism thanks to an accidental knife; birds nest in an interplanetary traveler out on a spacewalk; a woman becomes obsessed with a body that no-one believes will be found; a cruel sister communicates her intent to return to the land of the living; after centuries in the shadows, the macabre Cult of the Nose is finally exposed. Stories bridges the gap between genres effortlessly, going from SF to horror to historical fiction with nary a break for you to catch your breath.

There is no right or wrong way to read Stories, as Neil Gaiman says. I hopscotched through from short fiction to long, from one known quantity to another, mysterious to me. But read it you absolutely must. You won't read a more remarkable anthology than this all year. Come to that, it's not likely you'll come across a collection as thorough-bred, as impressive, surprising and impassioned as Stories in the next decade. If all were right with the world, there would be a copy of this astonishing collection on every bookshelf. Young or old, genre or general fiction fan, these tales will stay with you through the night and beyond. Storiesis truly an anthology for the ages.


Edited by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio
June 2010, Headline Review

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  1. Its a very nice site, I love to this site

  2. This is a book I do long to read. Great way to tantalize the tastebuds reading this stuff.

  3. I'm all about tantalising tastebuds! :)

  4. my tastebuds are tantalised and I've already read it! Great review Niall, youve made me want to read it all over again

  5. I started reading Stories today, beginning with "Blood." I did it during my lunch break. I had to stop eating several times and make myself keep food down. What a story. I can't wait to see how the rest of the anthology turns out.